Tagged: the guardian

Sky News’ Social Media Policy – It’s not archaic, it’s just a new approach

By now you’re all likely to be aware of Sky News making significant changes to their employees’ social media usage via an email to staff last Tuesday.

In this week’s Media Mouthwash podcast I called the policy “anti-web”, but I’ve deliberately left it this long before writing something about it because I think it’s a much more nuanced issue than some dissenting voices have made out.

Don’t tweet when it’s someone else’s story

This is probably the most galling aspect of the policy. If an employee isn’t particularly social media-savvy, then there’s no harm in another journalist using Twitter and other networks to promote and share their content in a way that means it’ll get maximum exposure.

If I was the only person sharing my own work around Twitter, then it’d get very limited traction, and there’s no harm in staff helping get extra eyeballs onto a colleague’s piece.

Always pass breaking news lines to the news desk before posting them on social media networks

There is fundementally nothing wrong with this. If we’re acknowledging that Twitter is a medium like any other, and one that should sit alongside videos, blogs and audio reports amongst Sky News’ output, then it makes sense that it should be properly integrated with the news desk.

Communication with the desk is essential in order to make the news operation an efficient one. I don’t have a lot of experience with them, but I can’t imagine the vast majority of news editors being too happy with a journalist breaking a story on Twitter and then strolling over and telling the desk about it a few minutes later.

Breaking news without context on Twitter holds little or no value for the journalist or his/her audience in itself. The value comes from using Twitter as the start of a narrative.

When I was covering the bomb blasts and shootings in Oslo, I started by using Storify to collect information and photos about events in the city centre. Then when people became aware of the shootings, I moved to turning my Twitter feed into one dedicated to covering new developments.

My follower count didn’t rise because I was constantly breaking new information on Twitter, but because I was able to organise it more efficiently into an understandable narrative than others covering it at the time. I didn’t retweet everything I saw, I thought carefully about how people following me would be able to easily understand what was happening.

Breaking news in itself holds little value – were my parents really any the worse for getting the full picture of the London riots on Newsnight rather than watching it unfold in real time on Twitter?

Passing lines to the news desk before tweeting makes good sense in a large organisation because the news desk is the hub that controls their coverage. They can distribute information to correspondents, multimedia specialists and graphics teams.

The ego of a single journalist itching to grab a bit of social media limelight should be able to bow to the collective nature of a news operation in order to strengthen its overall coverage. As Martin Belam notes, “being first really mattered when your rivals had a 24 hour print cycle before they could catch up”.

If anything, this shows that Sky would like to step away from the “never wrong for long” tag that indicates they’re happy to be wrong as long as they correct themselves quickly.

The BBC are rarely quicker than Sky when it comes to breaking news, but hold far more trust because they seem to pride context and verification much more. Is it a bad thing that Sky want to move toward this model more? I don’t think so.

Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter.

This is slightly more problematic, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s removing the social from social media. As a Sky News employee, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to cover Oslo or the riots in the way that I did if I’d adhered to this rule.

However, if you look at the social media usage of many journalists, they primarily use it as a promotional, rather than as a news gathering tool. Sky News’ new social media policy does not stop journalists from seeking out sources on Twitter, or finding photos that can be later added to strengthen news coverage. There are lots of journalists with big followings on Twitter, but only a fraction of them seem to use social media to actually dig things out and add another aspect to traditional sources.

If anything, the whole debate seems to be a microcosm of the divide that often seeks to engulf any rational discussion about online journalism. That is, if you don’t agree entirely with the popular view of mainstream media persistently “not getting it”, then you’re old news, you’re irrelevant, or Victorian.

I think it’s important to understand that there are many shades of grey – what works for Sky News wouldn’t work for Tech Crunch and vice versa. This policy is neither surprising nor as draconian as some commentators have implied – what’s more interesting will be observing if it becomes indicative of Sky News’ shift to a markedly different kind of news provider.

How I covered the #Oslo bomb blast

A lot is written about the value and prominence that live coverage will occupy in the future of journalism. The Guardian frequently live blog breaking news, and there’s an endless amount of story leads, commentary and analysis to be found on Twitter. 

But how would you go about covering something like say, the Oslo bomb blast and shootings in Utoya? News organisations have plentiful resources, staff and contacts, but that doesn’t mean that the individual can’t drive his or her own coverage.

The first I knew of the blast was from journalist Dave Wyllie, when he tweeted this. Dave often covers live events and breaking stories on Twitter, and is a good source to both follow a story as it develops and also learn from. At the time I was sitting in a coffee shop, about 20 minutes walk from my house. I wasn’t in any position to help tell the story so I directed people to Dave as a good person to follow.

Ambling home around half an hour later, I started putting together a Storify of relevant information on the explosion in Oslo. At the time of writing, that Storify has had 8,400 views and I was picked up as a source by the Daily Beast, by Mashable and Muckrack.

Part of this was identifiing how I could add value to what was already out there. Many were already covering the situation well on Twitter (the aforementioned Dave Wyllie) so there was little point in rehashing or repeating what they’d already said.

Instead my attention turned to other channels – to YouTube, Flickr, Twitpic. Eyewitnesses were already starting to upload content to these networks, and by searching using filters to identify the most recently uploaded photos or videos I could start to see new information coming in. I duly tweeted these and then added them into my Storify.

My next step was to start to gain some kind of handle on what the Scandinavian media was saying. Never before have I been as convinced about the power of being multilingual – as I asked around on Twitter 5 or 6 people all volunteered to help me translate video clips and audio files that I’d found around the web. That allowed me to not only post new content, but add commentary and explanations alongside it for an English-speaking audience.

Later in the day, and the coverage had switched to that of the shootings in Utoya. Again, how could I add value to an audience that was fast catching up on the story through mainstream media outlets?

The answer came in the form of pairing with several more translators. Lars Doucet – a Norwegian living in Texas, began helping me with several press conferences by both the police and the prime minister. I either retweeted his tweets or bundled the information he’d given me into my own explanation of what was going on.

By this time the story had slowed ever so slightly, so I began putting together a private Twitter list that I called my “Norway Wire”. It contained 10 to 15 people who’d been invaluable in covering the goings on in Norway, many of whom were on the ground as events played out in front of them. I started using the list as a personalised news wire, checking for information and retweeting what they were saying to my followers.

Live coverage like this isn’t ‘easy’, per se. It takes some practice, and you have to be very careful about verifying information and checking facts. But then if you didn’t consider those two qualities to be of absolute importance, what are you doing in journalism? The only difference is that the instantaneous nature of the news can make it tempting to publish to get ahead of the pack, and it’s one that should never be succumbed to.

I was quite overwhelmed with the response that I got, which was more of a personal experiment than any desire to position myself as the go to person for the story. I had huge amounts of feedback from people on the coverage, from both those I already knew and those who had picked up the story and begun to follow me. Many were complimentary. Others less so.

We often talk about citizen journalists being able to beat reporters to the scene of a story by simply being in the right place at the right time. But less is said about citizens collecting and making sense of all the information at a faster pace than mainstream news organisations. In honesty, people like Dave and I shouldn’t have been able to become amongst key sources for the story. He was in Scotland, I was sitting in my living room, and we both had access to a computer.

The biggest learning point for me is that again, concepts and techniques that my generation may take for granted are still being viewed with caution by many established hacks, and I think that bodes well for the future.

Pro-am journalism: How to improve Rosen’s report card

A couple of weeks ago Jay Rosen gave a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum titled “The Past and Future of Pro-Am Journalism“. In it he spoke of public journalism’s achievements to date, but was ultimately disappointed with its progress. Indeed, since Rosen published What Are Journalists For?, the media doesn’t seem to have moved on in the way that he or I would have liked it to.

Rosen posits his thoughts as a report card – awarding grades to certain concepts depending on how well they’ve been executed or developed. He starts by saying that he is in a mood of frustration, and that pro-am journalism in its current state should be given a C Minus. What I’m going to do here is select a couple of observations, and suggest ways of improving those grades.

“Comment threads supply knowledge that improves accountability – C minus”

Comment threads are often touted as something that has changed what journalists do. In some senses, it has. Journalists reading “below the line” can see what the public think. They can point out inconsistencies and correct inaccuracies. Most of the time they are used for stimulating a debate around the article that continues long after it goes live on a site.

But the key problem with them is that they take place after the article. They still rely on a journalist posting what he or she believes to be the full picture, and then letting the public debate that after the fact. Dynamic comment threads could work as a form of story-builder.

Jeff Jarvis has come under fire recently when his views on the article were somewhat misrepresented, but his idea of assembling news as it happens is something that can be facilitated by better comment threads. Not everyone is part of Twitter, Facebook and other sharing networks. But a lot of people do check in to a news website. Using comment threads to help with the newsgathering and clarification process is a logical step. The article posts what the reporter knows (as soon as he or she knows it) and the comments help to fill in the blanks.

People familiar with the 1:9:90 rule (for every 100 people involved in an article, one will write it, 9 will comment, and 90 will just read) know that we need to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Filling in a form, specifying what category the comment falls into to make for easy newsgathering, or including factcheck boxes can all contribute to a better form of thread than daily one upsmanship over on Comment is Free.

“Pro-am investigative journalism – Double F”

A tricky one. Investigative journalism is often thought of as epitomising journalism – a check on power and exposure of corruption. Sadly it is in limited supply thanks to both the financial resources required as well news organisations’ race to the bottom. But how to improve investigative reporting through pro-am journalism? The distributed network that we see in social media could equally be applied to large-scale investigative operations.

If a newspaper had reason to conduct a large-scale investigation into say, a financial institution, they could involve their ‘contacts’ far more than how they currently do. Journalists’ contacts are often treated like prostitutes – they are contacted when needed, for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time. But pro-am investigative reporting could see news organisations using the power of the expert distributed network over a much longer period of time.

How would they do this effectively? By first identifying the level of engagement that each participant wishes to give to a project. At the very top level you could include financial analysts who have specialist knowledge and want to see changes made to the financial system as a whole. At a lower level there are people who have a more local grip on things – experts who see the effects of the institution in their part of the world, but not the bigger picture. And at the basic level, you have a public who are prepared to sift through pages of spreadsheets to identify relevant information.

So far this part has already been done. The Guardian do it a lot. The last example of this was the Sarah Palin emails, something with little news value but a brilliant test to see how this kind of journalism might work. Using networks to help people join the dots (as Rosen notes could have been done pre-financial crisis) is a crucial skill that news organisations could provide.

To put it succinctly – in 2011 we are doing more, but we should be doing so much more. Rick Waghorn has identified the need to roll out the collaborative mindset from a content-centric basis into things like advertising (the same should be said for all aspects of a news organisation), but the way in which content is produced is still imperfect.

Rome wasn’t built in a day – it took over a thousand years to develop and expand into the city it is today. Lets hope it doesn’t take that long for journalism to rebuild itself.

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